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Practice Makes Perfect in Japanese Cooking

If I have said this before, I will say it a thousand times: the Japanese elevate everything to an art. Everything--from making sushi rice to making concrete--takes years of dedicated apprenticeship. All else is sacrificed to honing the craft. I want to encourage you to practice your Japanese cooking skills even if you do not want to put your entire life energy into it. You can still become a good cook of Japanese cuisine with just a little practice. But you must practice!

When I taught elementary school, I was able to get through to young minds when I put things in their perspective. "How many of you like to play soccer?" Hands flew up. "How many of you want to be great soccer players?EAgain, hands waved with enthusiasm. "How many of you go to practice, give the ball one huge kick and then go home?" Titters of laughter rippled through the classroom. "How many times then do you practice kicking the ball?" Replies came, "Hundreds!" "Thousands!" "No, millions of times!" Of course, you do!" I smiled. "That is what makes you all such great soccer players. Practice. So why do you expect to be great spellers when you only look at your spelling list and practice your spelling words once before the test?"

They laughingly realized it was ridiculous for them to expect to ace their spelling tests after only one run-through. If little children can understand the importance of practice, why can't we adults do the same? I can't tell you how many times I've heard friends and strangers lament that they are "awful cooks" and that "nothing ever turns out right" after only one trial run of a recipe! Cooking is not as easy as following a recipe. Sometimes, there are techniques involved. Sometimes, arbitrary factors get in the way. The fresh strawberries lacked sweetness or the pumpkin was too fibrous and watery. Ok, so most of the time, the problem is pilot error, but you won't learn if you give it only one attempt. Practice makes perfect.

I, for example, make fairly good Japanese dishes. Are they crafted with ease, skill and beauty? Not at all. I have improved somewhat as there is less trial-and-error anymore. But still, there is much concentrated effort, fretting and hopefulness as I practice my skills. (I bet great chefs do not have to cross their fingers when their guests take the first bite!)

Our last family celebration is a good example of how I still must practice my skills. Each year, I am asked to make makizushi with kampyo, shiitake mushrooms, tamago and seasoned tuna. There are some occasions when the sushi rolls come out nicely. But this year, something happened. After intense scrutiny, I figured that the quality of nori sheets were substandard (too easily torn, too thin) and I did not roll them tightly enough. I wrapped the makisu (mat) with plastic wrap the way restaurant sushi chefs do to prevent sticking, but then I could not grip it well enough to roll tightly. And then, the rice itself was not the same. I could not decide whether to season it lightly (to appeal to my new Japanese national in-law) or heavily (the way my mother likes it) and so I did a sort of in between. Did you ever hear of that old saying you can't please everyone all the time? The result was a mediocre mess.

I thought about how sushi apprentices go through years and years of practice and how I usually get in only one or two makizushi practice sessions each year. Usually, I end up making the easier inari, chirashi, temaki or even pan sushi versions for sheer convenience. I vow to practice a little more this year, maybe making makizushi for every holiday, with new fillings to fit the occasion. Maybe in time, my maki rolls will come out flawless. I would like to perfect turning out makizushi cut rolls with cute designs in the center, like bears and flowers.

So, my Japanese food loving friends, may I inspire you to continue your cooking efforts! Japanese cooking may seem simple or complicated but it is always, always worth the effort. Try, try, try again. You can still eat the mistakes.

When I bit into a slice of my less-than-delicious makizushi, it fell apart, along with my heart. My husband leaned over and whispered, "It is better than no sushi at all." Everyone else must have believed it, too. The proof? No leftovers.

Ah well, tomorrow will bring a new day and another chance for better sushi, better tempura, better ramen, better tsukemono, better nabemonoE

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